The anti-science position of the greens on GMOs, fracking and nuclear power, is itself political tool used to whip up fear.
One of the most bizarre things about debating anti-GMOers is the complete lack of interest in facts. Claims of health risks, links to farmer suicides in India or that Terminator genes are being used to control the global food supply and wipe out humanity are bandied about without the slightest regard for whether they are actually true or not.
For example in a recent debate on Facebook I was drawn into (I was warned by the host to be on my best behaviour and only posted useful links) there was mention on the recent pig feeding trials which claimed to show toxicity from GMOs. I posted a link to Mark Lynas’ discussion of this study, which, apart from exposing the flaws of the study, showed that the lead author is an activist and also connected to Seralini. This was the response:
Ah MArk Lynas – a paragon of common sense – the green turncoat of the nuclear and gm debate – ok well i see where this is going – you’re confidence in the science is laudable and Lynas is working for the other side… goodbye
So this is not about “science” or “facts” or “evidence” or any such- but about taking sides. Lynas is discredited because he has jumped ship and works for the Enemy; the handy thing about this position is that you don’t need to discuss the rights and wrongs of any of the issues.
This throws some light on Alice Bell’s recent article in the Guardian’s series on Science and the Greens Can you be sceptical about GM but believe in climate change?.
There is a lot to take issue with in this article but the paragraph that caused the most reaction below the line is
It’s also a lot easier for the GM lobby to play a game of “you are wrong on science” rather than acknowledging that the bulk of the critique against them is economic and political.
An example of this actually happening would be helpful- I have never seen a coherent critique of GM crops based on economic and political issues- concerns about corporations holding too much control on our food supply for example- that does not also play fast and loose with the actual evidence on things like food safety and efficacy of the technology.
What Bell fails to acknowledge is that most anti-GMO sentiment is in fact based on fear and distrust of science and scientists- the “Frankenfood” meme. Crazy unaccountable boffins in white suits meddling with Nature creating new traits that bring no benefits to anyone other than evil corporations who are portrayed as immoral drug dealers trying to get the poor and disenfranchised hooked for filthy lucre. Food + Profit + Science = Terror. The problem is, as Bjorn Lomborg points out effectively I think in his film Cool It! with regard to climate change, people who are scared- especially about things that are as personal as the food they eat and give their children- are not likely to be thinking very rationally. The emotional state of fear is in direct opposition to a careful consideration of and weighing up facts and evidence.
There is no doubt that people really do get genuinely scared about these things, and this affects their judgement and pretty much precludes them being open to evidence. An applicant to my course told me at the interview that they were applying because of concerns about global problems; when I asked which in particular, she said “Monsanto’s Terminator Seeds”. I pointed out there were none- “Oh come on, there must be!!” I think it is sad that people wake up each morning concerned about completely non-existent threats, but it seems that it is very hard to redress these fears with facts and information alone.
Activists know very well how to use fear to help their cause. Alice Bell also fails to acknowledge this- that the anti-GM movement cynically uses fear about food health safety to garner support- which leads to illegal acts of scientific sabotage. There is in fact a co-ordinated and quite deliberate, massively well-funded campaign of fear-mongering and misinformation, which feeds the mistrust and suspicion of science and scientists, and without which any political or economic argument would simply be unable to gain any traction. Political arguments tend to simply claim that under a capitalist system you cannot trust scientists, who are ultimately influenced in their research by corporate funders- which seems to be what Bell herself is also implying not-very-subtely in the same quote above.
Activist movements tend not to be very subtle. It has to be all or nothing. Nuance does not an effective Direct Action make. To oppose GM crops, to have people ready to break the law to destroy research, they have to be completely demonised. That is why facts and evidence can play no role. This is why the movement is inherently anti-science. If it was acknowledged that GM crops are safe to eat, that would more than somewhat take the wind out of the activists’ sails.
There is some debate as to whether people are really “anti-science” or just selective with their use of science, but this is a false distinction: being selective IS anti-science. Taking an approach that attacks and undermines and tries to physically prevent science from taking place is clearly anti-science. The claim that there is some kind of distinct political objection to GMOs is false: rather, and this is the point I think that Bell misses in her analysis, an anti-science position, which rejects the results of verifiable experiments, is itself used quite deliberately for political purposes; in fact, it forms the strategic foundation of the anti-GMO movement.
The anti-science position of the greens on GMOs, fracking, nuclear power and apocalyptic climate alarmism is itself political tool used to whip up fear. Fear then chases away rational analysis and shuts the door on science. This has proved a hugely successful positive feedback strategy (although on climate it may be suffering from diminishing returns).
Furthermore, the anti-GMO movement is largely funded by Big Organic and Big Quacka- the Seralini study was funded and co-authored by a homeopathic group. Many rank-and-file anti-GMO supporters completely buy into this level of pseudo-science, a rejection of the validity of the scientific method in and of itself. I have debated with homeopaths and biodynamic/organic advocates many times who are not in the least but shy of taking this most extreme and explicit of anti-science positions:
-”Science doesnt know everything”
-”Science is only one way of knowing”
-”Science is reductionist and biased”
-”There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
-and other such relativist/mystical positions.
What is most interesting about this whole issue is I think that suspicion of Big Science- a fear that it has become unaccountable, undemocratic and too powerful- is shared by many climate skeptics also. According to Warren Pearce in another piece from the same Guardian series, this may be with more good reason:
One of the most contentious issues arising from Climategate was the effort to withhold from publication data subjected to freedom of information requests. When physicist Phil Moriarty challenged these practices as being outside of accepted scientific standards, he was lauded by numerous commenters on the Bishop Hill sceptic blog as a “real scientist”.
Most climate “sceptics” it should be noted do not fall into the category of “pseudoscience” -unlike many organic supporters of the anti-GMO movement- but rather call for a genuine, scientifically sceptical approach to a very different kind of scientific question: the safety of GMO crops is readily verified through repeatable feeding trials, which if open and transparent fall into the category of good, classic scientific method. Noone has produced evidence that scientists have falsified experiments or withheld data on such trials or that the results have been manipulated.
Not so with climate science which as Pearce points out cannot be falsified in the Popperian sense. Most climate skeptics do not take issue with the verifiable results showing the “Greenhouse” effect of CO2, but of the fear-mongering that has been prevalent in the climate debate leading to irrational – anti-science?- policies which cannot in themselves address the issues in any case (such as Kyoto-style international treaties.)
Climate scientist Tamsin Edwards adds a fascinating comment on this debate in her piece in the Guardian series in which she calls for climate scientists to stick to the facts and the science and avoid drifting into specific policy recommendations. “I believe advocacy by climate scientists has damaged trust in the science. We risk our credibility, our reputation for objectivity, if we are not absolutely neutral.” She goes on to conclude:
I became a climate scientist because I’ve always cared about the environment, since a vivid school talk about the ozone layer (here, page 4) and the influence of my brother, who was green long before it was cool. But I care more about restoring trust in science than about calling people to action; more about improving public understanding of science so society can make better-informed decisions, than about making people’s decisions for them. Science doesn’t tell us the answer to our problems. Neither should scientists.
I think this is a crucial, stunning contribution, which should go a long way to addressing concerns on both anti-GM activists and climate sceptics: if we focus on public understanding of science, and not worry so much on what the public will do with that information or which policy they will go for, then fears of scientist-activists or industry shills might gradually abate. The big losers will be those who use the anti-science of fear for political ends- be it climate alarmism or scare stories about Frankenfoods.